We are now halfway through Rugby World Cup 2021 and the quarter-final line-up has been confirmed.
New Zealand, Canada, England, France, Italy, Australia, the USA and Wales will contest those quarter-finals, which will take place in Whangārei and Auckland this weekend.
But what did we learn from the final round of the pool phase at Northland Events Centre and Waitakere Stadium? We recap the action to find out.
The Black Ferns got the bonus-point win they needed against Scotland to secure their place as top seeds for the quarter-finals, and the hosts should be relatively fresh for the knockout phase.
No one started all three of New Zealand’s pool matches as Wayne Smith and his coaching staff gave playing time to 31 of their 32-player RWC 2021 squad.
Smith made 10 personnel changes for Saturday’s game at Northland Events Centre and many of the players who came in impressed, including fly-half Hazel Tubic, full-back Renee Holmes, who notched 22 points, and winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga, who marked her tournament debut with a try.
“They’ve put themselves in line for future selection,” Smith admitted and he will be happy to have strong competition for places within his squad, and a potential selection headache for Saturday’s quarter-final against Wales.
The Welsh certainly won’t relish facing a Black Ferns side that could be supplemented by the rested Ruahei Demant, Stacey Fluhler, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui, among others.
Ioan Cunningham’s side had an anxious wait to find out if they had made the quarter-finals following their narrow 13-7 defeat to Australia, and they will have to put in a more disciplined performance if they are to upset the Black Ferns.
Wales gave away 20 penalties against the Wallaroos, the most by a team in a match at RWC 2021, and it was ultimately two conceded within sight of the posts that proved decisive.
Lori Cramer converted both, as she did Iliseva Batibasaga’s excellent opening try, and coach Jay Tregonning will also be pleased that his side limited Wales to only three 22 entries and had the upper hand at scrum time.
Perhaps more worrying for the Wallaroos is the try they did concede came from a lineout move, an area their quarter-final opponents England will definitely look to exploit next weekend.
Saturday’s defeat to the Black Ferns brings to an end Scotland’s RWC 2021 campaign but having come so close to beating both Wales and Australia, there is a sense of what might have been for Bryan Easson’s side as they depart New Zealand.
“It’s obviously taken us 12 years to get here, but we've shown while we've been here that we do deserve to be here,” captain Rachel Malcolm said.
Canada marched into the knockout phase for the first time since they reached the RWC 2014 final and there is so much to enjoy about how the team is playing.
Saracens centre Alysha Corrigan came in for her first Rugby World Cup start against the USA and turned in a Mastercard Player of the Match performance to help her side to the bonus-point 29-14 win that wrapped up top spot in Pool B and second seed.
It was an impressive break from Corrigan that set up the move that ended in Alex Tessier dotting down Canada’s second try, and she was instrumental all game long.
Corrigan ended the match having carried for 108 metres, broken eight tackles and made three linebreaks. She also contributed 10 tackles to her team’s defensive effort.
Despite defeat, the USA qualified for the quarter-finals as the best third-placed team and their prize is another derby against their North American rivals.
Coach Rob Cain will hope to find a way to nullify the threat posed by Corrigan over the next week and he will also want to stifle arguably Canada’s most potent attacking weapon, their driving maul.
The USA had no answer in the sixth minute on Sunday as Emily Tuttosi dotted down for a sixth time at RWC 2021, and no player has scored more tries.
Cain will also want to tighten up the American lineout, having lost four of 11 throws, but there are causes for optimism. The USA made 12 entries into the Canada 22, the same as their opponents, and will want to be more clinical on Sunday.
Italy, meanwhile, created history on Sunday as they became the first male or female team from the country to reach a Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
The Azzurre were made to dig deep to secure victory, eventually running out 21-8 winners against Japan.
Michela Sillari contributed 11 points to the win and in doing so became the top-scoring Italian woman in the tournament’s history, overtaking Michela Tondinelli who is with the squad as part of the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
England and France made sure of their place in the quarter-finals with bonus-point wins against South Africa and Fiji respectively.
Much like Pool A winners New Zealand, the Red Roses gave game time to squad members while slight injuries to Vickii Cornborough and Emily Scarratt necessitated further late changes.
A number of the players who came in put their hand up for selection in the quarter-finals. Rosie Galligan and Connie Powell both scored a hat-trick of tries, there were braces for Poppy Cleall and Sadia Kabeya while Abby Dow was also on the scoresheet.
Tatyana Heard did not contribute one of England’s 13 tries but she put in a Player of the Match performance, carrying the ball for 157m while beating seven defenders and making two linebreaks.
It was the type of display that will give Red Roses coach Simon Middleton plenty to ponder as he prepares the team to play Australia next weekend, especially if Scarratt is ruled out once again.
France joined England in the quarter-finals thanks to their 44-0 defeat of Fiji and they also had a hard-running centre to thank for their win.
World Rugby ‘Unstoppable’ Maëlle Filopon carried for 109m on nine carries and grabbed a brace of tries either side of half-time to secure the all-important try-scoring bonus point. She also made six tackles and twice stole possession at the breakdown.
However, Les Bleues will know they will have to be more clinical if they are to beat Italy on Saturday to advance to the semi-finals.
France made 24 entries into the Fijiana 22 but only scored seven tries. Compare that with England, who crossed the whitewash 13 times from 15 22 entries against South Africa or New Zealand who converted nine of their 16 entries into tries.
Of course, credit must also go to the Fijiana defence for standing firm, especially during the 10 minutes of the first half in which they were reduced to 14 players.
Debutants Fiji and South Africa’s RWC 2021 journey is over but both teams have shown plenty of promise on New Zealand’s North Island.